The Ultimate Resource on Emergency Management in the Southern United States

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An aerial view of a flooded housing areaThe southern United States is noted for its natural splendor, from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and North Carolina to Florida’s Everglades and the sparkling Gulf Coast of Texas. Yet the region is also beset by a great number of natural disasters and other emergency situations.

Emergency management in the southern U.S. is a critical component of plans by federal, state and local government agencies as well as utilities and other businesses to keep residents safe in the face of crises, whether caused by nature or other sources. The extensive oil refining and other energy production operations in the Gulf of Mexico and surrounding areas make timely and appropriate responses to disasters especially important for residents of the region.

The South Has More Than Its Share of Emergencies

The historic record indicates that southern states are particularly susceptible to calamities — more so than other parts of the U.S. In MoneyWise’s list of the 25 most disaster-prone states, 12 are located in the South, including five of the upper 10: Louisiana (tied for 10th), Alabama (seventh), Florida (fifth), Oklahoma (third) and Texas (second).

Two of the five deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history struck south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

  • Topping the list of deadliest emergencies is the Galveston hurricane and flood of 1900, sometimes called the Great Galveston Storm, which claimed an estimated 6,000 to 12,000 lives, according to
  • The fifth deadliest disaster to strike the U.S. was Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico, as CNN reported, and took the lives of 4,645 people, a study conducted by health researchers at Harvard University determined; the study is described in the Washington Post.

(Note that the “official” death toll for 2017’s Hurricane Maria was initially only 64, but the researchers found that the number of “excess deaths” from Maria resulted in a toll greater than that from the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina combined.)

Research compiled by Popular Science indicates that the southern states of the U.S. are most prone to four of the magazine’s six categories of weather and climate disasters:

  • Droughts and heat waves.
  • Tropical cyclones.
  • Severe local storms (a distinction the region shares with the lower Midwest).

The South isn’t spared costly aftereffects of the magazine’s other two disaster categories: winter storms and wildfires.

These findings highlight the importance of emergency management services to residents and businesses located in the southern U.S. Efforts to mitigate the damage caused by the next emergency in the region are led by experts at preparing for and responding effectively to disasters whenever and wherever they may strike: emergency management directors, emergency managers and emergency specialists.

Top Emergencies in the Southern U.S.

Many residents of the southern states spent much of 2018 recovering from emergencies that seemed to come one after the other in the region throughout 2017, as Vox reports. In addition to the $102 billion in damage caused by Hurricane Maria in September 2017, Hurricane Harvey was a Category 4 storm that struck one month earlier and caused $198 billion in damage to the Houston area as well as other parts of Texas, Louisiana and other southern states. September 2017 also saw Hurricane Irma’s impact in southern Florida, costing communities in the state a total of $65 billion, according to Vox.

Four other “billion-dollar disasters” struck the South in 2017, as Vox states:

  • In March, severe weather in the southeast caused $2.1 billion in damage.
  • A freeze the same month resulted in damages totaling another $2.1 billion.
  • Flooding in April caused $1.7 billion in damage to parts of Missouri and Arkansas.
  • Tornadoes struck the region in January, leaving $1.1 billion of damage in their wake.

Here’s a closer look at the most destructive and deadly emergencies that struck southern states.

Hurricane Harvey, 2017

The Washington Post writes that the National Hurricane Center referred to the unprecedented rainfall totals from Hurricane Harvey as “truly overwhelming.” The numbers show that in recorded history, there has never been a storm like the one that made landfall in the Houston region in August 2017.

  • Nearly 6 feet of rain fell on parts of Houston during the storm, the Washington Post
  • 200,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, as CNN
  • More than 1 million people were displaced, Fortune magazine
  • More than 500,000 privately owned vehicles were damaged or ruined entirely, as were an equal number of vehicles owned by businesses and government agencies, the Balance
  • $127.5 billion in damages resulted (some estimates put the total damage figure as high as $180 billion, citing figures from Fortune magazine).
  • 10,000 people were rescued from homes and flooded highways (the Balance).
  • The official death toll for the storm lists 93 lives lost, as reported by WJLA-TV in Washington, D.C.

The numbers above tell only part of the story of Hurricane Harvey’s devastation. The Balance estimates that the storm affected more than 13 million people in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Kentucky. Approximately 800 wastewater treatment plants and 13 Superfund sites were flooded by Harvey, causing sewage and toxic chemicals to contaminate flooded neighborhoods.

The damage caused by Hurricane Harvey wasn’t limited to one region of the country. The Balance found that in Harvey’s aftermath, 25 percent of the oil and gas production in the area was shut down, causing a temporary increase in gasoline prices of more than 10 percent nationwide. The storm also impacted the supply of heating oil to the northeast U.S., requiring the Department of Energy to release 500,000 barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to make up for the shortfall.

Hurricane Katrina, 2011

In late August 2005, meteorological conditions in the northern Gulf of Mexico set the stage for the most damaging natural disaster in U.S. history, and one of the deadliest. Hurricane Katrina reached Category 5 status, with winds greater than 170 miles an hour, in the evening of August 28, just hours before it made landfall, first near New Orleans, and a second time near the mouth of the Pearl River at the Louisiana-Mississippi border. Katrina was one of the most powerful Atlantic storms ever recorded, Encyclopaedia Britannica reports.

  • An estimated 1,833 lives were lost as a result of the storm, the New Republic
  • Total damages resulting from Katrina are estimated at $125 billion, but, the Balance claims, the total cost of the storm was $250 billion.
  • Millions of people who lived in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast were left homeless.
  • The area of maximum winds extended 25 to 30 nautical miles across, making Katrina one of the largest storms ever to make landfall. Hurricane-force winds extended 75 nautical miles or more from the storm’s center to its eastern edge.
  • Storm surges from 10 feet to 28 feet washed over the coasts of southeastern Louisiana and Mississippi.
  • 80 percent of New Orleans and adjacent parishes were flooded for weeks before the water finally receded.

More than a decade after Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans metropolitan area continues to recover. As of 2014, the area’s population reached 1.252 million according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which is an increase from the 1.04 million residents in the region in 2006, but still below the 1.386 million residents in 2005. While many of New Orleans’ popular tourist attractions have returned to near normal, other parts of the city simply no longer exist.

Galveston Hurricane and Flood, 1900

The storm that ravaged Galveston Island, Texas, on the night of September 8, 1900, remains the deadliest emergency ever to strike the U.S. The hurricane’s death toll is estimated at 6,000 to 8,000, with some researchers claiming as many as 12,000 may have perished in the storm.‘s Becky Little is one of the historians who believe the death toll from the storm would have been lower if the Weather Bureau in Washington, the precursor to the National Weather Service, hadn’t made a totally erroneous forecast. Little writes that scientists in Cuba tracked the storm north of that island and knew it would enter the Gulf of Mexico. However, the Weather Bureau, which was not sharing information with Cuba for political reasons, predicted that the hurricane would cross Florida and head toward New England. Tragically, they were “very, very wrong,” Little writes.

  • The Galveston Hurricane was a Category 4 storm whose sustained winds reached 145 miles per hour, as Coastal Living reports.
  • The death toll from the hurricane of 6,000 to 12,000 is estimated to represent 20 percent of the island’s total population.
  • com detailed the storm surge as reaching 15 feet, while most of Galveston Island is only five feet above sea level, and its highest points are only seven to nine feet above sea level.
  • 3,600 buildings on Galveston Island were destroyed, with an estimated total value of $30 million in 1900 dollars, com states.

The tragedy that struck Galveston that night brought to light serious communication breakdowns in the Weather Bureau’s operations.The chief observer in the bureau’s Galveston office concluded that the bureau’s forecast was incorrect before the storm hit, but he was unable to alert the city in time. In the wake of the Galveston hurricane and flood, hurricane scientists in the U.S. improved their communication internally and with their counterparts in other countries.

The South’s history of natural disasters

The southern states have suffered through many other catastrophes as well:

  • The 1928 great Okeechobee hurricane took more than 2,500 lives in the vicinity of the Florida Everglades, as described in Hurricanes: Science and Society.
  • The Sea Islands hurricane struck South Carolina in 1893 and claimed 1,000 to 2,000 lives, the World History Project
  • The Cheniere Caminada hurricane, or the Great October Storm, struck southern Alabama and the southeast coast of Louisiana, killing 779 of Cheniere Caminada’s 1,500 residents and 2,000 people in total.
  • Hurricane Andrew caused $49.1 billion in damages when it struck Miami and southern Florida in 1992, as noted in the World History Project.
  • Hurricane Ike crashed into the Gulf Coast of Texas in 2008, causing $35.7 billion in damages, according to MoneyWise.

Local Agencies & Hotlines by State

When an emergency occurs, the first responders are typically public safety workers for local and state agencies, often working in conjunction with trained citizen responders. The Department of Homeland Security’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program trains volunteers to be prepared for disasters and to take steps that will mitigate the damage resulting from emergencies of all types.

Topics covered in the CERT training include fire safety, hazardous materials, terrorism, medical responses to disasters, and searches and rescues. There are more than 2,700 local CERT programs in place: The training occurs in all 50 states, and over 600,000 individuals have participated in CERT’s emergency training.

In the event of an environmental emergency, the Environmental Protection Agency offers training and support for state and local emergency responders as part of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA). Enacted by Congress in 1986, the EPCRA is designed to help local governments respond to chemical emergencies.

The EPCRA requires that companies report to local, state and federal agencies about their activities relating to hazardous materials, including the substances’ storage, use and release. Likewise, state and local governments use this information to prepare their communities to prevent chemical-related incidents and minimize the risks posed by hazardous materials.

Each southern state government includes a department charged with preventing and responding to emergencies. In addition, the National Emergency Management Association brings together emergency management directors from all states and territories in the U.S. and the District of Columbia. NEMA committees focus on such topics as preparedness, response/recovery and mitigation. In addition to reports and publications, NEMA offers training and education services, a five-year strategic plan and two national conferences covering national and regional emergency management strategies.

Here are the emergency management agencies for the southern U.S., most of which feature hotlines that the public can use to alert the agencies of power outages, gas leaks and other emergencies:

Top Emergency Management Careers in the Southern U.S.

Deadly hurricanes such as Harvey, Katrina and Maria bring such widespread devastation that they become historic markers for the regions affected. However, hurricanes are far from the only emergencies to impact the residents and property of the South. Because the states of the southern U.S. experience major emergencies at a higher rate than most other regions, there tend to be more opportunities for people looking for a career in emergency management.

Leading the emergency preparation and response efforts at the federal, state and local level are emergency management directors. It is their duty to minimize health risks and property damage in the event of all types of urgent incidents. Emergency management directors interact with local law enforcement and community groups to forecast potential emergency situations and plan coordinated responses. They also oversee recovery from emergencies, which can be a decades-long process.

The responsibilities of emergency management directors include the following:

  • Assess the emergency risks specific to a particular region.
  • Devise a preparedness plan that will minimize the risks to residents and to property presented by various potential emergency situations.
  • Collaborate with public safety officials, businesses and citizens to hear their recommendations for effective emergency mitigation and response.
  • Oversee the training programs that will prepare officials, responders and volunteers to act in a timely and coordinated manner when emergencies occur.
  • Be ready to assess the damage caused by various emergency situations.
  • Review the preparedness plans of medical facilities and local emergency operations and revise the plans if necessary to ensure they are up-to-date and as effective as possible.

Research conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that 52 percent of emergency management directors work for local government agencies, excluding hospitals and education. Another 12 percent are employed by state agencies, again excluding hospitals and education, while 8 percent work for hospitals, and 6 percent are in professional, scientific and technical services.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook reports the median annual salary of emergency management directors nationwide as of May 2017 was $72,760. The highest-paid emergency management directors work in professional, scientific and technical services, where the median annual salary was $95,890. By contrast, the lowest-paid directors worked for state agencies, excluding hospitals and education; these directors earned a median annual salary of $60,000.

Emergency management specialists are more likely to be the “boots on the ground” who join with local emergency teams to form the first line of defense in response to emergency situations. They often work for federal, state or local government agencies, but also in law enforcement, the military and private businesses. Emergency management specialists are responsible for ensuring that people affected by a disaster are safe and have access to such basic necessities as shelter, food, water, clothing, medical supplies and sanitation.

PayScale estimates the median annual salary of emergency management specialists at $57,458 in a range from $36,251 to $94,118. The median annual salary for emergency managers, according to PayScale, is $69,837 in a range from $41,239 to $108,458.

By contrast, disaster management specialists focus on planning and implementing responses to natural disasters: earthquakes, floods, tornadoes and hurricanes. Their duties often overlap with those of emergency management directors in mitigating risks associated with hazardous materials, power-related emergencies and terrorist attacks. Typical activities of disaster management specialists include the following:

  • Study responses to past disasters to determine the most effective remediation and restoration approaches.
  • Comprehend the effect of regulatory requirements on disaster mitigation efforts.
  • Prepare to assess health factors present in the short-term and long-term aftermath of a disaster.
  • Assess and classify the damage done by a disaster to rate the level of risk to humans, property and the environment.
  • Work with engineers, public officials and property owners to plan restoration efforts.

Other job classifications in the field of emergency management are emergency preparedness specialist and emergency planner.

Earn a Master of Science in Safety, Security and Emergency Management

People are drawn to a career in emergency management by the unique challenges that each emergency situation presents. In most cases, emergency management professionals are on call 24/7, and they must be ready for whatever hostile environment awaits them in the aftermath of a calamity affecting their community — never knowing how long they’ll be working at the site.

The uncertainty and unpredictability that would cause many people to shy away from a career in emergency management are among the qualities that attract others to the occupation. It is a career where no two days will be the same, and each situation encountered will require a unique response. Emergency managers often have backgrounds in fire safety, law enforcement, the military or other front-line emergency response.

The reward most emergency management professionals prize the most in their work is knowing they are able to help people at a time when they need help the most, improving their lives during times of fear, grief and despair, and often saving lives in the bargain.

Preparing for a career in emergency management involves education, experience and training. A vital skill for the profession is critical thinking, to solve the problems that are unique to each emergency while also understanding standard operating procedures for each category of disaster. Communication skills are also imperative to ensure an effective, coordinated effort by responders from various agencies who possess different skills and trained volunteers.

These are among the skills highlighted in Eastern Kentucky University’s Master of Science in Safety, Security and Emergency Management (MSSSEM) degree with a concentration in emergency management and disaster resilience. Among the program’s core courses are these:

  • Issues in Security Management
  • Legislation & Legal Compliance
  • Quantitative Analysis in Safety, Security and Emergency Management

Subjects covered in the program’s electives include these:

  • Applied Study in Safety, Security and Emergency Management
  • Natural Hazards and Threats to the Nation
  • Managing the Nation’s Disasters

Emergency Management Careers: Taking the First Steps

Most public agencies, hospitals and private businesses require at least a bachelor’s degree to qualify for an emergency management director position. While often voluntary, some states and employers mandate that emergency management directors receive certification from an industry association or government agency, including:

  • Certified emergency manager (CEM) through the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM)
  • Certified business continuity professional (CBCP) via the Disaster Recovery Institute International (DRII)

FEMA’s Higher Education Program promotes college-based emergency management programs to ensure sufficient qualified candidates are available to meet the future demand for emergency managers. The program encourages the type of formal education, hands-on learning and practice that forms the core of Eastern Kentucky University’s MSSSEM degree.

Preparing for a career as an emergency manager in the southern U.S. entails a mix of experience and education to provide the necessary background:

  • The chemistry and biology behind hazardous materials.
  • The climatology and meteorology behind hurricanes and other natural disasters.
  • The engineering behind the impact of disasters on structures of all types.
  • The medical training to understand what is required to respond to emergency-related injuries.
  • The leadership and communication skills required to manage a diverse group of professionals and volunteers in the most difficult and stressful situations imaginable.

Find out more about how an MSSSEM degree from Eastern Kentucky University delivers the perfect blend of classwork, training and practice to excel in the field of emergency management.


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